Ben Summers Culture Critic
If you missed the Monroe Crossing concert on Friday, October 5in the Carey Center Auditorium, you missed something very special, dontcha know? The Minnesota bluegrass band’s renditions of traditional and original gospel and bluegrass songs, stunning interpretations of Etta James and Grateful Dead classics, blindingly fast pickin’, beautiful group harmony and spectacular showmanship made their show a highlight of the semester and a standout performance of the Saint Vincent College Concert Series’ 2012-2013 season.
Bluegrass isn’t normally associated with the big sky and snowy cityscape of the Twin Cities, but the passion, speed and electrifying style of Monroe Crossing erased any idea that good bluegrass only comes from the heart of the Kentucky. Their versions of bluegrass standards were razor-sharp, their original songs were captivating and their music grabbed hold of the audience’s attention and feet. Although others may not have the words of “Kentucky Waltz” or other Bill Monroe masterpieces committed to memory as I have, the chorus of voices, noise of tapping feet and spontaneous whoops from the audience at the end of “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” made it clear that the band had put on a show that anyone could enjoy.
The high, clear guitar of Derek Johnson, sweltering speed and crystal clarity of Matt Thompson’s mandolin and explosive banjo rolls of David Robinson awed the crowd, while the incredible voice and soaring violin of Lisa Fuglie soothed as it wound around the buoyant, bouncing bass of Mark Anderson. Monroe Crossing transformed old favorites into new obsessions and introduced original songs with impressive skill, airtight harmony and humor.
Bluegrass standards like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Walls of Time” were achingly pretty and showed off Lisa Fuglie’s stunning singing voice. “Dueling Banjos” had Robinson and Thompson trading blows as their fingers flew across their fretboards in a blur of precision while Anderson’s bass sprang and bounced like a super-ball off pavement. The irrepressible choruses, simple beauty, and easy rhythm of original gospel numbers “Micah 6:8” and “Joy, Joy, Joy” reflected the unrestrained joy, celebration and mysterious power of the best homilies.
The vintage dress and simple stage of Monroe Crossing strengthened the relaxed, communal atmosphere of the concert. The single microphone of the band forced the band to crowd around to sing, and the sight of shining wingtips, bows darting in and out of a cluster of stringed necks and the bobbing head and flying hair of Anderson felt right out of “A Prairie Home Companion.” For a country boy who grew up on bluegrass and country, it was like going home to the prairies and flat lands of North Dakota and Colorado. I expect the band’s melodies brought back memories of home and days long past from attendees other than myself too, as I heard whispered lyrics from all around me.
After a phenomenal first set, the band broke for a brief intermission and took song requests from the audience. I racked my mind for forgotten favorites, caught a snatch of lyrics from my childhood and introduced my brother and myself to the band as “the only North Dakotans in the whole state.” I praised the band for their music, apologized for being so bad with song titles and then sang the words of a Grateful Dead tune to Johnson in the hope that he’d know the song. He nodded and, during the second set, announced that the band’s next song was for “two Midwestern Deadheads” before the band blew away a cover of “I Know You Rider.” I was ecstatic and sang the whole song with a smile.
The band’s covers of “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as made famous by the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies were all remarkable, but it was Monroe Crossing’s cover of“At Last” by Etta James that struck the audience dumb. Fuglie’s performance was miraculous; her voice soared over the delicate playing of the band with confidence and a perfect mix of relief and limitless bliss. Monroe Crossing’s cover was an earnest, breathtaking version of one the most beloved love songs of all time.
The Saint Vincent College Concert Series’ goal is to bringing “world-class performances by internationally-acclaimed artists during the academic year” and Monroe Crossing certainly met all the criteria. Monroe Crossing converted more than a handful of audience members to the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass through remarkable musicianship, irresistible energy and warm showmanship.
Future performances of the SVC Concert Series will be pianist Andrew Tyson on November 3 and The Guidonian Hand Trombone Quartet on November 30.